Category Archives: Life
A new book, Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why it Pays to Get Along, by Stefan Klein, is revisiting the idea of “survival of the fittest,” and just what that might really mean in terms of human social interaction. Reviewed in the wonderful journal, Greater Good: the Science of a Meaningful Life, ( Does Nature Select for Nice? ), reviewer Joseph Ferrell says, “Klein argues that selflessness, not selfishness, creates more genetic success, and that proof for this has been gaining momentum among scientists, gradually challenging the “survival of the fittest” model in evolution.”
“If our ancestors had not learned to follow common goals, they would never have become sedentary, never have crossed the oceans and colonized the entire earth…never have invented music, art, and all the comforts of a modern life,” writes Klein, suggesting that the rise of civilizations are likely the result of a selflessness that is vital to our species’ continued success.
Oftentimes it doesn’t feel that way – that selflessness leads to more success than selfishness. Big business, big government, brute strength, loud propaganda, steamrolling bosses and coworkers, drivers apoplectic with road rage, and pushy people on the street and subway would seem to suggest otherwise, that nice people get kicked to the curb while the self-absorbed rise to the top and reap what often seem to be undeserved rewards.
But if you feel you’re one of the “nice” people – and probably most of the people reading this would feel they fit that category – think about your day, about your circle of friends, about the stranger who smiled at you, or said “excuse me,” or who helped you pick up something you dropped. More likely, those folks outnumber the others, who typically substitute volume for substance.
Our work with FIRST youth robotics teams reveals to us regularly the power and promise of selflessness. In FIRST parlance, it’s known and celebrated as “Gracious Professionalism.” Coined by Dr. Woody Flowers, FIRST advisor and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gracious Professionalism, or as the kids call it “GP”, is “a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.”
Gracious Professionalism, Dr. Flowers says, is a vital part of pursuing a meaningful life, and he urges FIRST students to “Go be kind and creative.”
Dr. Flowers gets the power of compassion in a competitive world.
And, indeed, a FIRST tournament can be one big noisy nerdy, love fest, a combination of fist pumping, chest thumping, gear grinding competitive robotics mashed up with those same competitive kids line dancing with linked arms happily caterwauling to 80s karaoke. They understand that even in a field of obvious winners and losers, they are still all friends, bound by their unique shared community that endures beyond the field competitions.
They have learned that they can be nice and successful, and the wonderful schmaltzy rewards of their larger community reinforce that understanding.
No less that Charles Darwin himself pondered the question of altruism and its role in natural selection. In “The Descent of Man,” Darwin wrote, “He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.”
The question is not, then, “Why is the world so cruel?” But perhaps more appropriately, “How can there possibly be so much kindness in such a cruel world?” That is the miracle, made abundantly obviously by a nature video gone viral over the last few days, of a hippo gently shoving an injured gnu ashore. In what way would helping the gnu benefit the hippo? And yet, the hippo helps.
Clearly, compassion and kindness persist in the most unusual and trying of circumstances.
Instances of heroic selflessness are legion throughout human history, and everyday acts of random kindness are abundant. Cooperation and collaboration – “Coopertition” FIRST kids know it as – ensures not only individual survival, but the success of a community.
It’s not hard to see what drives some people to ruthlessness. The real wonder is what makes so many, so nice.
A little over a year ago, my daughter and I were victims of a distracted driver who struck our car while when he checked his cell phone while trying to make a left hand turn. We were in a bright red Toyota Camry with the headlights on, driving at dusk at the end of a line of cars cruising slowly past Beaver Lake on our way back from Hobbs State Park. We saw the massive Dodge Ram truck turning into us without ever slowing.
When I opened my eyes, the sulfurous smell of deployed airbags filled the air and my right leg was burning from where an airbag under the steering column had kept my legs from going into the bottom of the dashboard.
As I tried to get my bearings, the first voice I heard was that of the driver of the other vehicle, hurrying over to me saying, “I just looked down at my cell phone for a minute.”
That’s all it takes. Just a minute to change everything.
We were very fortunate. While we were sore, cut and bruised for several weeks afterwards, we walked away. The windshield had cracked, the car was totaled. But we walked away.
The film, which Fast Company calls ” a brutal piece of documentary storytelling in which both the perpetrators and the victims of texting and driving open up about the ways that the collisions have changed their lives.” - will be distributed to more than 40,000 high schools around the United States. You can also find it on ItCanWait.com, where visitors “can take a pledge not to text and drive, share their own stories and see stats on the problem (including this troubling one: 75% of teens say texting and driving is common among their friends).”
Do me and everyone else on the road and in your life a favor.
Take the pledge.
Put the phone away.
It can Wait.
My GPS has this wonderful “Avoidances” feature that allows me to select any of several driving obstacles I’d like to avoid: U-turns, toll roads, traffic, carpool lanes, ferries (?). When I’m traveling -at least, after I reach my destination – I choose to avoid “Highways.”
Toodling around Baton Rouge for the last few days, “avoiding” highways has taken me to some great places in some interesting ways. I’ve seen sights and neighborhoods that I’d never have enjoyed had a I just hopped up on I-10 or I-12 and puddle jumped between exits.
Taking city streets to the Old Capitol area took me through some gritty areas of Baton Rouge, but also gave me an intimate sense of the history and layout of the city. Driving main roads to Bluebonnet Swamp richly illustrated the wonder of this fantastic urban greenway, bordered on all sides by homes and businesses and busy roads that give no clue to the wild lands they embrace, or the diversity of nature the park protects.
In the same way, entering the LSU Rural Life Museum and Ag Center grounds – an amazing 40 acre oasis of history and botanical beauty – along residential roads that give way to boundless fields and acres of forest made the experience of time travel offered by this unparalleled museum of folk architecture and culture even more powerful.
Baton Rouge, like all communities large and small, is more than the sum of its parts. It is powered by the energy, perseverance and creativity of its people, made manifest through that people’s architecture, industry and artistry. Exit hopping on the highway makes it convenient to forget and easy to miss everything in between those exits that makes it all possible and, more important, that makes it all meaningful.
Tomorrow, I have to disable my highway avoidance and make use of those high speed interstates, at least for some major stretches, if I’m to have any hope of getting back home in a day, which work and life necessitates. But I’ll be keenly aware of the lives and livelihoods, of the history and communities, that I’m passing by. And at the first opportunity, I’ll be taking the first available exit off the highway and getting back to the roads that really take you places.
Last year around this time, my oldest daughter and I headed out for a road trip to Arkansas, where she was competing in the National Taxidermy Association event. We love our time together, out and about and exploring, and the event itself was fun and edifying and my uniquely talented daughter had a good showing. But the trip turned trying, and painful, when we were in a bad car accident the day before we were to return home, struck by a good person but a careless driver.
Things went from bad to worse after that – our dog died before we could get home; our house flooded a couple of weeks later, due to a roofing job gone bad; and a recent lay off just added to the somber (and damp) atmosphere.
But the trip itself, when all was said and done and accounted for, was still good and memorable and meaningful, as road trips often are. We took the “blue highways” home – America’s slower and more scenic back roads. The Natchez Trace proved especially an especially calming and thought provoking drive, ambling along the eastern spine of the country, through deep woods and rolling hills, through centuries of history.
Thinking about that trip, as the date for this year’s journey approached, I ran a “Blue Highways” contest on Fine Art America and the submissions provided a thoughtful look at back roads scenery and history around the country. The top three winners are featured here in this post, but the rest are all worth enjoying. Because despite the harrowing start to our trip home, personally detouring ourselves off main highways to take a slower drive home made that journey far more memorable than the accident, providing a soothing balm to its scary precursor.
The back roads of America are the ultimate roads home – through the boroughs and little towns and fields and farms and cottages and cottage industries that lie at the heart of who we are, a diverse and multifaceted people, self-reliant, independent spirited folk.
Sometimes we make mistakes – we check our cell phones when we should be watching the road; we get out of our car when we should stay in it and change the course of our own and others’ lives; we say something when we should remain silent, or conversely, we remain silent when we should speak out. Sometimes we’re foolish and short-sighted, impatient and intolerant.
And other times we are magnificent – our back roads speak to some of that higher purpose, the way they trace ageless tracks through our countryside, past the monuments and signs through which we memorialize our past, and the way the artists among us capture the canvass of our classic landscapes, or turn a vista into a turn of poetic phrase. There are always the “helpers” Fred Rogers spoke of, the people you see in every community who alleviate blight, waste, loss, anger and heartache with the stroke of their brush of compassion and kindness – an art in itself.
And so as we set out on the road again tomorrow, northward bound to Baton Rouge, LA this time, we’ll be angling again for those back roads, taking the opportunity and the time, to travel carefully (defensively!) and thoughtfully.
“Life is a highway”, Tom Cochrane sang.
Sometimes it’s a rough ride. But if you take the back roads – the roads less traveled – and don’t let the set backs sideline you, there’s a good chance you’ll not only go places and see things, but learn a bit on the journey.
Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.” Thomas Merton
I try to live my life in alignment with my core beliefs. My work, my faith, my art all aim to serve that bottom line. I love FIRST because of its focus on transforming culture in a way that elevates and empowers and celebrates youth for doing important, intelligent work. I love LI4E because I’ve been able to exercise nonprofit creativity with it, experimenting with intellectual performance art like TEDxYouth and Mini Maker Faire, and working to bring things I believe are good for communities – accessible learning, makerspace projects, free resources – to more people.
I love my church because it helps keep me centered, informed about and focused on the things that ultimately matter to me, and which all the other things I do ultimately serve. I love writing and photography because they’re vehicles for self-expression, and give me opportunities to turn ideas around and inside out, visually and verbally, and to look at things from different perspectives.
And yet I struggle continuously against myself: against the baser, less noble aspects of my being, against my short sightedness, my impatience, my foolishness, working to keep self-righteousness, expectations and judgment at bay. Sometimes I succeed. Often I don’t. Always I am aware that I could be a much better person than I am, that I could be a better wife, mother, aunt, daughter,co-worker, and friend.
In a wonderful class I took recently – Everyday Practical Buddhism, an introduction to the Rissho Kosei-kai school of Buddhism which is grounded in the real world – practical – aspects of the faith, the idea that we are always working to overcome ourselves and that these struggles are part of the journey, resonated with me. Rather than look at personal backsliding as failure, it becomes simply an opportunity to practice being better. If practice does indeed make perfect, then I’m going to need a lot of practice, so I can expect to have frequent set backs. The idea is to shorten each failure, to experience more time between them, to become more aware of each of our thoughts and actions, more intentional and less reactionary in our responses. There’s no reason to beat ourselves up over our failures, just acknowledge, move on and try to do better next time.
It’s not easy. People like Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and the every day good people we encounter who make serenity and compassion look so elegant, if not easy, are constant reminders to me of what I could be, of what we all could be, if we just put others before ourselves more routinely. If we – if I – had more patience. More compassion. More love. If I could really let go, un-attach, stop the cycle of self-imposed suffering caused by the expectations I have of the way life ought to be as opposed to the way life is.
And then today I encountered Thomas Merton, and pulled up short at the quote that presented itself:
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
It’s not the “worthiness” part that galvanized me so much – I know better than that. When you get right down to it, I could say I’m not worthy of all the love and care I’ve received all my life. I’ve done nothing to do “deserve” it. It’s that third line – “What we are asked to do is love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy. “ It’s not that all of us deserve love, which makes it a need-based experience, but that all of us are called upon to love, which puts the idea and the practice wholly in our own hands and within our sphere of influence.
I’m not sure how I missed Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) in the scope of my searching and learning. Perhaps I just wasn’t ready for him before. The son of artists, whose own journey of self-discovery in his short life took him from Catholicism to communism to monasticism, Merton’s body of work includes some of the earliest interfaith dialogues and studies in the U.S., encompassing some of the first Western conversations with the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, among other Eastern religious figures.
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going, “ Merton believed. “ What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
Well that’s a good thing! Especially since just when I think I’ve got it figured out, it becomes quite evident that I don’t.
“What we have to be,” he said, “is what we are.”
My life is a work in progress, but I’m increasingly aware that I tend to over complicate things, to over think the moment in which I would do better to simply be. I want to fix and help and improve, when all I really need is to be open, caring and accepting, of the moment, of those in my life at any given moment, of whatever experience envelops me at that moment.
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times,” Merton observed.
Conversely, he said, “It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from the effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting any immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.” (No Man is an Island)
Can I do that? I don’t know.
As my work with both FIRST and LI4E take me into new circles of relationships and influence, it can be easy to lose sight of the whole point of doing it all, to get caught up in the excitement of success and forget the bottom philanthropic line, the mission and goals at the heart of it all. As my adult children take their own paths through life, it’s natural to want to point out perceived hazards or errors of choice, to try to keep them safe and help them be successful, when all they need is the freedom to make their own mistakes and enjoy their own successes, my unconditional love and an open door. When I have to share my life with someone I find unpleasant, it’s easy to fall into resentment, when I could simply let go of expectations and judgment and exist side by side, making better use of my existence, and more joy in theirs.
I’m a work in progress. No promises. But if all I’m really called upon to do is love, I can certainly try.